Rick Atkinson was already a formidable journalist (three Pulitzer Prizes and a 25-year career at The Washington Post), when he turned to military history, writing five acclaimed books on the subject. Now, with the publication of The Guns at Last Light, his sixth book and the final volume of his Liberation Trilogy, he has completed an epic 750,000-word narrative history of the U.S. Army in the European Theater of World War II.
Atkinson’s zest for research and his evident devotion to hard facts never obscures the grace of his writing. The proof of that lies less in the many accolades and prizes (including a Pulitzer in history in 2003) than simply in the reading: Rare is a 600-page-plus history book that qualifies as a page-turner.
‘My ambition is to have a distinctive narrative voice, to bring a literary sensibility to writing about war’
How long did you work on this volume of the trilogy?
I started the trilogy in January 1999 [with Vol. 1, An Army at Dawn]. Vol. 2 [The Day of Battle] was published in the fall of 2007, and I started work on Vol. 3 in February 2007, finishing in February 2011.
What aspect of World War II was the hardest to convey?
The impact that it had on the countries it was being fought across. I always felt that I was not able to fully convey “the hot rake of war,” to use Churchill’s phrase, as it was dragged across the countries where the battlefields are. Also, it may be my ground-pounder orientation, but I find it more difficult to be as vivid in writing about the air war.
How did you manage a fresh approach to the battles at war’s end?
I read that Amazon lists 120,000 World War II titles, in hardback. So that’s daunting. This is a trilogy, and part of what I bring to the table is the recognition that the war didn’t start on June 6, 1944, that to understand what happens in the last 11 months of the campaign, you’ve got to go back and understand what happened in the Mediterranean, in Africa and in Italy. I’ve always looked on it as one story, with many of the same characters and the same issues. It really begins on the eve of Nov. 8, 1942, with the invasion of North Africa, and continues to May of 1945.
Beyond that, my ambition is to have a distinctive narrative voice, to bring a literary sensibility to writing about war, and to make that voice compelling enough and vivid enough that even people who are well read about World War II feel that they are coming to the story fresh.
How did the Allies achieve surprise on D-Day?
The Germans knew in a strategic sense that something was coming. That’s why Erwin Rommel had been put in charge of building up the Atlantic Wall. But the German intelligence apparatus was supine—they had effectively no air reconnaissance assets, and their naval reconnaissance was minimal. And Hitler’s decision to defend the entire continent of Europe, from Norway to the coast of Spain and southern France, meant German forces were stretched very thin. When you’re looking everywhere, in effect you’re looking nowhere.
Also, the Allied deception plans were quite brilliant, and the Germans were duped. They knew, but they didn’t know. If you don’t the particulars of it, including place and time, then you effectively don’t know in a way that’s militarily useful.
Who was the most effective Allied battlefield commander?
I’ve always had a soft spot for Lucian Truscott—he was one of the best the U.S. Army has ever produced. By his own admission, as a brigadier general in North Africa he didn’t have any idea—any more than anybody else did—what he was doing. But he showed a great capacity to learn as he went along.
George Patton at times in his campaign was as good as anybody. His ability to get across France, to swivel Third Army in December 1944, is very impressive. I think Ninth Army commander William H. Simpson was also excellent, but he was so damn normal he has been largely forgotten by history. Many thought Maurice Rose, who was killed at the end of March 1945, was the best armor commander in the U.S. Army, and that his 3rd Armored Division was extremely capable.
And on the German side?
I think Fifth Panzer Army’s Hasso von Manteuffel was clearly a capable commander. He seems to have had the whole package, including some degree of humanity. Of course, by the time he faced the ultimate challenge in November and December of 1944, he was playing a pretty weak hand. He recognized the shortcomings of both the Battle of the Bulge plan he’d been handed and the hazards of waging war in the Ardennes in winter. As a very good battle commander he recognized that the gap between battle demands and assets was too wide to bridge.
Which conflicts and resolutions among generals, on both sides, were most important?
The Allies’ operational conflicts over how the attack into Germany should be shaped, and the issue of who should command it, were paramount. Ongoing debates over the broad vs. narrow strategies espoused by Dwight Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery, respectively, will ultimately not be resolved, because there are good arguments by both of them. But only one was effected, and it worked. So, you have to say that Eisenhower was right, because he won the war.
On the issues of command, should there have been a single battle commander overseeing all Army groups? Again, Eisenhower had a plan, and it ultimately succeeded. Montgomery’s arguments were reasonable, but they were pushed to an unreasonable degree. He was unable to let it go. Eisenhower’s forbearance was part of his skill as a commander. If Montgomery had been a U.S. Army Group commander, Eisenhower would not have tolerated what was clearly insubordination.
From early 1944 on, how important was the Allied tactical air effort?
Absolutely critical. Indispensable. Look at the German commentary on it from Rommel and others. It was an obsession with them, because they were the victims of Allied air superiority, and it affected everything they did, including moving around, as Rommel found to his chagrin.
What was the most significant battle now forgotten?
The Hürtgen Forest leaps out, both for the sanguinary nature of it—flinging one division after another into it—and for the incompetent command of the battle. Most Americans don’t know anything about the Hürtgen Forest. And the Vosges Mountains is another one.
One of the things I found is how unrelenting the fighting was near the end of the war. There were almost 11,000 American soldiers killed in April 1945, almost as many as in June 1944. There were fights all over Germany by that point, including German towns that refused to give up. Consequently, there was just incredibly intense fighting, often urban fighting, lasting from a few hours to a few days. It was as intense as any fighting American soldiers have ever done anywhere—and a lot of those fights are now lost to history.
Did the war’s turning points come in 1944–45 or earlier?
I think the global turning point was in 1942. The Allied victories at Midway and Stalingrad and Tunis meant the die was cast. In the European campaign, by June 7, 1944, that die was cast. Once the Allies were ashore, it was unlikely any kind of counterattack or counteroffensive was going to push them back into the sea.
What did you learn that surprised you the most?
I continue to be surprised at the depth of Anglophobia in the American officer corps, particularly among generals. I understand the reasons for it, part of it being British superciliousness and American experiences in World War I. And part of it is certainly the petty nature of so many Americans who had spent their careers leading cavalry charges on windswept posts in the middle of nowhere in the American West and were suddenly thrust into high wartime command. And I’m always surprised by the fractious nature of the relationship between commanders. But then the stakes are so high that it causes people to act in picayune ways at times. The pressures on them are enormous. Nevertheless, the backbiting, the scurrilous personal attacks on each other, usually done privately, are quite striking.
Was this kind of attack coming from one side or the other?
No one attacked Montgomery more fiercely than his compatriots, particularly the Royal Air Force, particularly guys like [Arthur] Coningham, who just loathed him! They said nastier things about him than any of the Americans did. The Brits tended to be snooty about Eisenhower—how he was so callow and incapable of doing his job.
It was sort of equal opportunity elbowing and rivalry. But at the same time there was a sense of brotherhood among them. They were brothers in arms, and when push came to shove, they did cooperate and collaborate.
Your book pays a lot of attention to the smells of war. Why is that?
Part of it is an effort to make the scene as vivid as possible by drawing on the reader’s senses. Part of it is also the consequence of having spent a fair amount of time in the field with latter-day soldiers. It’s so vivid and so sensory, and the smell—whether it’s of jet fuel or of dirty laundry in a tent—is a very primary part of the scene.
How do you deal with the magnitude of the killing and the dying?
It is difficult. You know that old bromide attributed to Joseph Stalin—“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” America’s 292,000 battle casualties were relatively minor compared to some of the other nations. But still, for most Americans just to grasp 292,000 dead is asking a lot of the imagination. It seems to me the most effective way to convey it is to show that, in fact, the casualties occurred one by one. Somehow, I think the human heart reacts most authentically to the individual death. So I was always looking for an opportunity to find something that is poignant, hopefully without being cloying, in order to convey the fact that, as someone in the book says, “Even in the midst of this global carnage, the killing eliminates one place at the dinner table at a time.”
Did you interview many veterans?
Not a lot. I came to the conclusion a long time ago, partly as a consequence of being a journalist for years, that memories after 70 years are so fallible. The contemporary record is so vivid and vast and extraordinary that I tend not to rely on oral histories much. It’s human nature. It’s the way memory works. My father, who is 88, enlisted in the Army in 1943. He’s completely compos mentis. But I wouldn’t trust what he thinks happened in January of 1945 without having some kind of a confirmatory record of it. And there are many things out there I found much more efficient for my purposes.
The Army did a string of “hospital interviews” that are all at the National Archives. They would send professional historians for the most part—some really good ones—to England, where guys from the 104th Infantry Division who survived the Battle of the Bulge were hospitalized, and they interviewed them, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively. And there are many contemporary oral histories. Among them are Forrest Pogue’s interviews for the Army’s official history of the [Allied] supreme command. He was a professional historian—with no ax to grind but with a broad knowledge of what happened—and he interviewed all the senior people involved in the decision-making.
All of The Longest Day author Cornelius Ryan’s interviews are at Ohio University. You can go and find his interviews with everybody from Eisenhower on down to many low-ranking soldiers. They are extremely well done and are very well organized.
In writing the trilogy, did your sense of the Army’s fighting qualities change?
That’s an important question. We were pretty incompetent in November 1942, going into Africa—“we” being the American fighting man. They were green at all levels, from the theater commander on down. By the spring of 1945 there has been a great sifting-out, so that those with a gift for command—whether as platoon leader or corps commander—had manifested themselves. There was a ruthlessness in replacing those deemed unfit for command, so by the spring of 1945 I think the U.S. Army was pretty fine.
My sense of American soldiers and their competence has evolved, as they evolved. I see them warts and all. There were deficiencies. There was a reliance on firepower, in part because they had firepower, and there was a general feeling by many commanders that if you have to use 1,000 shells to take a hill, that’s better than 1,000 pints of blood. I don’t find anything wrong with that.
There has long been an argument over whether, mano a mano, a German unit was superior to its American counterpart in a fair fight. I think that is a nonsense question. Who is talking about a fair fight in a global war? War is a clash of systems, and it includes the capacity to outfit and train units and get them into battle in a way that allows them to prevail. If you look at the American Army from that standpoint, the question of whether some GI is a better combat soldier than some German counterpart is just nonsense.
Yet you seem to admire the average American soldier of 1944 and 1945.
It’s true for all of the services, but the Army in particular in Europe in February, March and April of 1945 was hardened, and the GIs were pretty tough and hard-edged. As a fighting force they were really formidable. They were fighting an enemy that had been ground into the dust, in large measure by them. That’s to take nothing away from the Eastern Front, where the Russians had done most of the fighting and dying and killing. But still, you look at the American Army in the spring of 1945, and you think, “Boy, they’ve come a long way in 2½ years.”
How important were logistics to the Allied victory?
Another old bromide says, “Amateurs pay attention to tactics, and professionals pay attention to logistics.” In World War II it was such a multifaceted thing. It included the capacity to produce 40 million rounds of ammunition, the capacity to produce however many tanks and trucks that were needed to overcome the GI’s capacity for losing things and breaking things.
What was the American “secret weapon” first deployed at the Battle of the Bulge?
The posit fuze, aka the proximity fuze. Some believe it was exceeded only by the atomic bomb as a vital, war-winning weapon.
Artillery was an inexact science, because you couldn’t get the round to go off where you wanted it to. So there was lots of Allied research into putting a radar sensor in the nose of a shell [to detonate a round as it neared the target]. The ability to conceive and produce a proximity fuze that could resist the stresses inherent in being fired from an artillery tube—and that could be mass produced in the millions for $20 or less apiece and gotten to the battlefield in time to make a difference—was an enormous technical feat that speaks volumes about the American way of making war.
What was the postwar significance of the Yalta Conference?
It’s significant in part because it was subsequently distorted and caricatured. We grew up in an age when Yalta was used as an icon of all the things perceived to have gone wrong in American foreign policy and American influence overseas; a belief that a dying President Franklin Roosevelt had given away Eastern Europe and a lot more. All of which I think is not true. I think Roosevelt’s immediate and somewhat plaintive assessment right after the conference—“This is the best I could do”—is true.
Possession is nine-tenths of both the law and of armed conflict. The Russians had lost some 26 million people by February 1945. Stalin had clear strategic ambitions for what he was going to allow postwar, some sinister, some understandable. I believe that at Yalta the Allies were on the verge of diverging from their alliance, that the conference was in some ways a hinge between war and peace. Most of what they were talking about involved postwar issues, whereas previous conferences had largely been about strategic planning for war.
At Yalta there were different agendas for all the participants. Understanding what happened there is very important in understanding how the war came to a close, and also to understanding the roots of the Cold War. The bargains either not made or not kept at Yalta were the seeds from which the next 50 years of Cold War conflict grew and persisted.
To write this book, you had to ignore interesting aspects of the wider war.
I ignore the whole Eastern Front and the entire Pacific. And I largely ignore the home front. Trying to untangle those things is sometimes difficult, because they are related, obviously. There are inevitably characters and events, battles large or small, that I end up giving short shrift to. There are many stories that just weren’t going to fit, either because of the narrative flow, or because it doesn’t fit within the structure of the book chronologically, or because it doesn’t fit, period. The book cannot be any longer than it is now. It’s 270,000 words as it is.
So there is more to say about the war?
World War II is bottomless. It’s enormous. People will be writing about it for many years to come, and consequently there is no such thing as a definitive book about the conflict.
I look forward to seeing what the next generation of historians—those who are 30 or 35 now—will write about the war. How will they approach it? It has emotional resonance for those of us who grew up in the shadow of it, and everything that came out of the war in terms of the American largesse and the ability of America to ascend out of the catastrophe of World War II directly affects our generation. But what about those really removed from it to the point almost where it’s as remote as the Peloponnesian Wars or the Civil War? How will they write about it? What will the resonances be for them?
I recently spoke to hundreds of kids at Ogden High School in Utah. I tried to convey to them that the world they live in today is very much shaped by what happened in the 1940s, and that the nation’s ability to grapple with some of its most serious social deficiencies on questions of race and gender equality is really shaped by World War II. It’s important for them to know that in order to understand who they are and where they came from. This is why they should care about it much more than just what happened at the Battle of the Bulge, or what Eisenhower was really like. Those are small pieces of this very large tapestry we call World War II, and that’s why it’s important for their generation and their children’s generation—and all of us—to understand this.